What most of us don’t understand about poverty

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The rising cost of living has occupied much media discourse in recent months. Rental stress, rising mortgages and ever-increasing petrol and grocery prices means there are few among us who aren’t feeling the pinch in some way.

The impact this holds for us varies depending on our circumstances. For some that might mean cutting back on luxuries, or watching our dollars more closely; for others it requires major lifestyle changes, or poses serious financial hardship. And for the most vulnerable, it serves to further entrench the disadvantage that existed long before the headlines.

The stress and uncertainty that many of us are feeling right now is undoubtedly challenging. For some it may be the first time in our life that we’ve felt the worry that comes with rising costs – hovering anxiously over the Netbank statement, or sleepless nights wondering how to make ends meet. The anxiety is real and significant – and yet it still does not come close to the grinding day-to-day experience of living in poverty. And though we’re all feeling the impact, it is people on low incomes – people living in poverty – who are being hardest hit by the recent changes.

Poverty is different to financial strain; poverty is a function of inequality. It is structural; it is often inter-generational; and it is all-consuming. It has long-term impacts. People living in poverty are at greater risk of homelessness and more vulnerable to abuse. There are physical impacts that come with malnutrition or untreated health problems. And – perhaps most significantly – it erodes one’s confidence and sense of self; it disconnects us from community and belonging.

Poverty changes a person’s mindset, even long after it ends. It grinds us down: it steals the joy from life; the ability to dream and hope for the future.

Life revolves around a series of mundane calculations: surviving the gap from one bill to the next, deciding which basic necessity is more important. There are few, if any, safety nets. Buffers are impossible – which means what might be, for those of us who are more comfortable, a minor inconvenience – a broken appliance, an unexpected bill, a car in need of repair – can be a life-changing event for someone living on or below the poverty line.

Plus, there’s the so-called ‘poverty penalty’. Essentially: it costs more to be poor. These hidden costs take many forms. When you’re down to the last few dollars in your account, you’re more likely to be hit with an overdraft fee. If you work in a casual role, as many low-income earners do, there may not be any sick pay when your child is home unwell from school. When you can’t afford the basics of life, it’s impossible to invest in long-term measures like efficient appliances or health insurance. When you don’t have supports or safety nets to fall back on, financial relief might come in the form of crippling payday loans.

The mentality around poverty in Australia is often one of ‘bootstraps’: that if one simply tried hard enough or made ‘good’ decisions, then they could lift themselves out of the situation they are in. But no amount of belt-tightening or personal choice – of turning off lights or switching to store-brand groceries or buying in bulk – will fix poverty. It doesn’t matter how much less you spend, if there is little coming in in the first place.

The current employment state has worsened the bootstraps narrative: ‘there are plenty of jobs available!’ While it’s true that there are industries that are crying out for workers, the barriers that made it hard to find or maintain employment before – ill health; disability; caring responsibilities; age; limited skills – still exist now. This rhetoric also ignores the emerging community who experience impoverishment: those working in low-paid roles. It is entirely possible to be employed, perhaps even working multiple jobs, and yet still experience poverty.

The financial distress and fear for the future that many of us have been feeling lately are a mere drop in the ocean compared to living with poverty. Think of the knot in your stomach when the interest rate letter arrives – and then imagine what it is like to forever live with that sense of looming dread. Not just here and there, during a lean week or in response to changing costs, but all the time; as a constant background soundtrack to life.

To continually have to tell your children ‘no’ when they ask for something at the shops (but perhaps not for long, because they eventually learn to stop asking). To live with the stigma and shame of asking for help. To have your choices critiqued and judged (because you’re not allowed to have nice things when you’re poor). The genuine relief at finding a stray coin in the street. Going to bed hungry each night, having made the choice between food and shelter.

It is easy to think, from our places of comfort, that this is an affliction of very few; Australia is a fortunate country, after all. Not so for the estimated 3.24 million Australians who live in poverty. That’s more than 1 in 8 Australians – and 1 in 6 children – who do not have sufficient money or resources to meet the basic needs of food, shelter or clothing.

It’s also easy to think this doesn’t happen in our Jewish community; again, untrue. Every day at Jewish Care we see individuals and families who – through no fault of their own – require support with basic needs like food and rent. Our colleagues at other communal welfare and support organisations will tell you the same.

Poverty absolutely exists in our community – and its impacts are made all the worse by the belief that it doesn’t.

Supports like ours and those of other like organisations provide some immediate relief, and services like financial counselling can help to plan for the longer-term – but breaking the cycle of poverty requires structural responses, as well as individual. Individual supports can build capacity, empowerment and recovery – but we need structural responses to change the drivers and conditions from which poverty arises in the first place. Addressing family violence, mental illness and homelessness; investing in communities and education; lifting the rate of social security payments to above the poverty line – each of these actions would go an enormous way in helping to end poverty in Australia.

Don’t be silent this Anti-Poverty Week. Be angry; speak up. Use your voice to raise awareness and call on governments to implement the changes that are so desperately needed. Talk to those around you about poverty. Challenge misconceptions; help break the myth that poverty is the result of poor choices or recklessness. Give to charity, if you’re able to. But most of all, hold empathy and compassion – because without these, we will continue to close our eyes to what is right in front of us.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, contact Jewish Care Victoria’s Front Door on 8517 5999.

About the Author
Cassandra Barrett is a Melbourne-based community educator and writer with a background in public health and gender studies. She has a particular passion for health, social justice and gender equity, and their intersection with Jewish life. Cassie is currently Program Manager of Healthy Communities at Jewish Care, and also serves as board member for a number of community organisations.
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